Is This Real Life? The Problem with Averages

In 2005 a friend convinced me to run a 5k race.


Despite not doing much running since my last 5k in 1999, I was confident I hadn’t lost much speed during my six year running hiatus.


When the gun fired to start the race I quickly made my way toward the front of the pack. As a part of the lead group I could hear the race volunteer yell out “six minutes!” as we crossed the one mile mark.

A short time later something didn’t feel right. My legs started to fatigue. My lungs gasped for air. My sides began having cramps. What started as a dead sprint had deteriorated into a sluggish jog.


Like a middle-school student running the mile in PE, I made the classic mistake of going out way too fast. The more people who passed me, the more frustrated I became.


Eventually I crossed the finish line in 25 minutes. Although not terrible, this time was nowhere close to the marks I posted six years prior.


A few days later after the disappointment wore off I committed to running the same race the following year. By adequately preparing for the event, my goal was to post a time that more accurately reflected my running ability.


Over the next 12 months I did everything possible to prepare for my next opportunity. I studied the best training plans, asked other runners for advice, and completed workouts that would put me in the best position to succeed.


In the days leading up to the second contest, I felt good about my preparation. My body felt strong, I understood the course, and my confidence was high.


When the gun sounded to begin the race, I again made my way toward the front of the pack. As we passed the one-mile mark I could hear the race volunteer yell out “six minutes!” Would I experience the same fate as the previous run?


Not this time. Due to my intense training, I was able to keep the same pace the entire race. Although I didn’t win, I finished the 3.1 mile course in 19 minutes. I felt great satisfaction in knowing my hard work paid off.


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Imagine if instead of telling me my time was 19 minutes race organizers told me my time was officially 22 minutes. Instead of giving me the time I earned, they averaged my two race times together (25 minutes in 2005 and 19 minutes in 2006).


I would have told them this was unfair! I put in a year’s worth of hard work to demonstrate my mastery of a 5k race. Why should an assessment of my running ability be impacted by a previous performance?


While this approach to judging 5k races seems ridiculous, this is common practice in schools.


For as long as most people can remember, teachers have used averages to determine student grades. Although some teachers are beginning to place more emphasis on content mastery as opposed to central tendency, the truth is averaging is still the prevailing approach to grading in schools.


Why does this happen? As is discussed in many of my blog entries, educators love to hold onto traditional practices. We often resort to familiar methods - such as the way we were taught growing up - when running our own classroom.


Although changing long-held philosophies on grading isn’t easy, one of the best ways to change people’s opinions is with stories. When we provide examples of how archaic grading policies do not translate to real world experiences, we open doors for meaningful conversation about best practice.


In his book Talk Like Ted, Carmine Gallo suggests, “Tell stories to reach people's hearts and minds. Stories stimulate and engage the brain, helping the speaker connect with the audience and making it much more likely the audience will agree with the speaker's point of view. If you need to influence behavior, part of the solution to winning people over to your argument is to tell more stories.”


I love telling staff about my 5K example as this is a relatable experience for many people. There are several other narratives - such as being given multiple chances to take a driver’s license test (redos) and requesting an extension for filing taxes (deadlines) - that speak to the disconnect between grading practices and real life.


I encourage educators to think about how adult experiences translate to classroom practices. Are we choosing methods because they are right for students or because that’s “how things have always been done?”


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I ran competitively for seven more years. Although I never won a race (damn you Nick “5 Minute Mile” Cochrane), I was motivated to demonstrate my running ability without fear that past performances would affect future results.


If this approach is how we judge adults, why are students held to a different standard?


Copyright © 2019 by Dr. Jared Smith LLC.  Specializing in Leadership, Education, and Personal Growth.